In 1920, the Episcopal Diocese elected Philip Cook as the fourth Bishop of Delaware at the Immanuel Church in Wilmington. He was the son of John D.S. Cook who served as an officer in 20th New York state militia (also known as the 80th New York Regiment) of the Army of the Potomac’s First Corps during the Civil War.
John Cook attended Union College in Schenectady, N.Y, before graduating from Albany Law School. Soon thereafter, hostilities between the states erupted in 1861, and John helped organize a company of soldiers to fight for the Union cause.
Shepard Cook, a descendant who lives in Dagsboro, shared his grandfather Philip Cook’s memories of his father, especially regarding the latter’s experiences at the battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. It was there that Capt. John Cook survived the artillery barrage prior to an assault on the Union position on July 3 that sent more than 12,000 Rebels marching across an open field and consequently resulted in their suffering great loss.
With masses of Confederate dead and wounded lying in front of the Union First Corps position on Cemetery Ridge, the victorious Union troops had the unwelcome task of gathering or burying these casualties of the now-famous Pickett’s Charge. Nonetheless, the tired, hungry and thirsty men were grateful for having survived this climatic encounter.
Capt. Cook supervised a detail that assembled 15 dead Rebels, including a colonel. He directed his men to dig a long trench, and place the bodies side by side while reserving a separate space for the colonel.
Cook’s detail learned the officer was James Gregory Hodges, 14th Virginia Regiment written in his cap and from an identification card in his pocket. A bullet had shattered his sword, and his sword-belt had become loose. The men gave the belt to their captain who prized it as a relic of the battle.
Before his men spread dirt over the aligned bodies, Cook read aloud the Office of the Burial of the Dead from an Episcopal book of common prayer he carried with him. Darkness obscured this respectful formality.
Many years later in 1903, in a remarkable set of circumstances at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., Virginia Sen. John W. Daniel by chance struck up a conversation with someone who looked familiar. The man happened to be John Cook, the former Union army captain who was now a practicing lawyer.
Cook related to Daniel, who also was a Civil War veteran who lost a leg at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, the story of Col. Hodges death and hasty burial at Gettysburg. Cook let Daniel know, although Hodges’ sword-belt had become an heirloom, he would be willing to return it to any surviving members of the colonel’s family.
Sen. Daniel contacted Judge James P. Crocker who he knew was a relation of Col. Hodges. Crocker informed him that the colonel’s widow, Sarah A.F. Hodges, was still alive and was especially appreciative of Cook’s kind offer to return her deceased husband’s sword-belt.
In a paper delivered at the Stonewall Camp of Confederate Veterans on July 18, 1909, Judge Crocker related what happened next. He praised John Cook for sending “at once to [Mrs. Hodges] the sword-belt, with a letter of noble sentiments and sympathy.” A photo Hodges had previously taken wearing the belt verified its authenticity.
In finishing his story of post-Civil War reconciliation and redemption, Philip Cook commented, “After nearly a third of a century [the widow of Colonel Hodges] heard for the first time definite news as to the manner of his death and place of burial.” Armed with this information, Sarah Hodges made a pilgrimage to Gettysburg and visited the spot where her beloved husband had perished.
Over the past 150 years, millions of relatives, friends, and descendants have gone to Civil War battlefields to pay tribute to those who willingly sacrificed their lives for what they believed was an honorable cause. The nobility of Gettysburg combatants is reflected in John Cook’s prayerful burial of his enemies: “Happy from now on are those who die in the Lord! So it is, says the Spirit, for they rest from their labors.”
Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” a History Book Club selection available at Bethany Beach Books. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website www.tomryan-civilwar.com.